Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mike: Matthew 6:7-13

The Sermon on the Mount runs through Matthew 7:28. We'll probably skip direct commentary on 6:16-18, since it replicates the matters we've already covered when dealing with 6:1-6 (we can deal with the matter when we edit our materials).

All of which leads us to take up the Lord's Prayer, Matthew 6:7-13. The text (NRSV)reads as follows.

"When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one."

Fairly early in the church's history, a doxology was added: "For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours,forever. Amen."

The prayer assumes God desires to hear our prayers, that it is right and sane to pray, and that good prayer connects us with the great matters of God. God does not have to be persuaded to listen, nor do our prayers inform God. Instead, in ways roughly analogous to a human parent, God already knows our deepest needs. Prayer helps form us, freeing us from the illusion of false needs and teaching us to see clearly what we really need.

And what is it we really need? We need to grow into a healthy relationship with this distant yet very near God. Our yearning must be reoriented, so that we long for God's rule to become fully effective in us and the broader life of the world. We must be freed from all desire for more than we need and become content to have "daily bread." We need to acknowledge our debts (or trespasses) and ask forgiveness, even as we also become the kind of people who extend forgiveness to others. Pride must be subdued and humility put in its place as we increasingly recognize our limits and cease from boasting. All such developments come to pass over time, as we embrace the practice of prayer.

Such prayer requires both words and silence, action and waiting, speaking and listening. Ideally, it becomes our mode of life, so that all other things are subsumed in prayer. The Lord's Prayer may help both the individual and a congregation take steps in this direction.

Obviously, there is much to unpack in the phrases of the prayer, but I thought it best to start our discussion with a summary statement.

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/29 Post

I admire your consistency, Mike. Your comment, "We don't merge with God but choose instead to love and serve God, without whom we are incomplete," reminds of the Hindu saint Ramakrishna who said, “I love sugar, I don’t want to be sugar” when arguing for the fundamental otherness of God.

On the topic of literacy and interpretations of the Bible, it is fascinating that people continue to find new meanings in the text. With the exception of Christian Fundamentalists, whom I take to be biblical literalists, most Christians and Jews find the Bible quite malleable. For me there is no final meaning to the Bible. If there were it would be a dead text. It lives because I can allow my reading to reflect my life. We don’t read the Bible as must as read our reflection in the Bible.

Which brings me back to our project. I am not quite certain where in the text you plan to stop. So if there is more, please lets move on.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 12/23 Post

For the most part, I think you have described the differences in the two viewpoints quite well. I want to nuance one or two items. First, from my perspective a self is a soul, a unity. Second, the concept of self/soul may be, and often is, linked to punishment and reward. Such linkage, though, is not a given. Finally, you write "We don't merge with God; we realize that we are never other than God." I might write: "We don't merge with God but choose instead to love and serve God, without whom we are incomplete."

Turning to the matter of the Protestant Reformation, literacy and literalism, we need to be careful not to overstate the state of literacy in Luther's time. General literacy, of course, was not achieved for quite some time. Readers, though, were scattered throughout the population, and the easy availability of printed material enabled them to read aloud to large groups. Luther's translation of the scriptures into German accelerated the growth of literacy.

You are correct: Protestants attempted to focus on the meaning of the text. "Literal" probably is not the best term to describe most of their efforts. They, instead, sought what many of them would have called the "plain" meaning of the text. To put it another way, they sought the simplest interpretation of any given text and thus produced interpretations ranging from the literal to the allegorical.
As literacy grew, individuals produced an often bewildering variety of interpretations. Some branches on the ever-growing Protestant tree succumbed to the "literal only" approach.

I think you are on to something important with your suggestion that the availability of the Bible was so exciting that many could not imagine needing anything else. Most such persons became part of what historians usually call "The Radical Reformation." Over time, a majority of Protestants discovered the value of paying attention as well to interpretive tradition, experience and the quiet voice of Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/22 Post

We often have slightly different takes on things, and our notion of “self” may be one of them.

You know that I spent ten years studying and practicing Zen Buddhism, and I admit that my understanding of “self” is colored by my experience in that setting. The “self” in the Buddhist context is a transient manifestation of equally transient conditions. It is often trapped in ignorance—literally ignoring the greater Reality of which it is a part, and insisting that it is separate and eternal in its own right. Maintaining the delusion of separation and permanence leads the “self” to live a life fueled by anger, greed, arrogance, and fear.

This idea of an eternal and separate self is essential to mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Without it, there is no soul and no eternal reward and punishment. My experience with meditation and other contemplative practices, as well as my reading of the world’s great mystics leads to me deny the existence of individual selves and souls as well as eternal reward and punishment.

I like the analogy of the ocean and the wave. The “self” is like the foam on the peak of the wave. It is a natural phenomenon, part of what it is to be a wave, but it insists that it is other than the wave and even more other than the ocean. The foam is the ego so desperately clinging to the illusion of its own separateness that it lives a life of alienation and needless suffering.

The wave is the truer self, or soul if you like. It too can be deceived into imagining it is other than the ocean, and when it does it feeds and is fed by the delusional fear of the foaming false self.

The ocean is Reality itself, God in my use of the term. It is not other than the wave or the foam, but it is infinitely greater than them.

The gift of enlightenment or salvation or awakening is the realization that foam, wave, and ocean are one. It isn’t that we live without a self or ego, but that we live without the false notion that we are separate from the wave and the ocean. We don’t merge with God; we realize that we are never other than God.

Regarding “your Father who is in secret,” I was afraid that the Greek original might not support my take on the English translation, but your mentioning of the Protestant Reformation raises another question for me.

Part of Martin Luther’s revolution rested on universal literacy and the technology of Guttenberg that allowed the average person to own her or his own Bible. I wonder if the miracle of literacy and the capacity to read what the Bible actually says rather than having to accept the interpretations offered by the Church led Protestants to focus on the literal meaning of the text. Being able to read what the Bible actually says was so important, so new, and so revolutionary that they couldn’t imagine needing anything else. Literacy and literalism may have gone hand in hand, and, at least in the beginning, necessarily so.

As for mystics and their maps—absolutely. All words are signs. The question is whether or not they point to something other them selves. We all agree that the word “unicorn” points to a white horse with a spiral horn in the center of its forehead, but we might well disagree as to whether such a being actually exists or ever exited. For the mystic, all words are self-referential, referring only to themselves. Only silence—deep, transformative silence—takes us beyond the map of words to encounter the territory of the real as it is in and of itself.

Merry Christmas, Mike.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 12/16 Post

Thanks for drawing attention to Csikszentmihalyi's description of the "flow state." His language captures the matter nicely!

Thinking back over the course of our ongoing conversation, I think we may differ in our visions for the self. You speak of a state in which "self is gone," and you view such an end as desirable. From my perspective each "self" is a creation of God, made not to merge with God but to enjoy God and be enjoyed by God. The problem is that the "selves" tend to go rogue. That is, we focus on ourselves, enter into competition with other selves, seek power over others, and attempt to reduce or eliminate God. To put it another way, we try to take the place of God rather than the place we were created to occupy.

The ideal for the self, from my perspective, is to see, acknowledge, and willingly embrace what one was created to be. When we do so, we cease to compete with others. We start to "enjoy" ourselves, others and God. We take up work for which we are suited. To borrow a New Testament image, we come home and find it the best of all possible states in which to live.

Interestingly, though, I think both our approaches may lead to the same kind of behavior toward ourselves and others.

Turning toward the phrase "your Father who is in secret," my only point was that I do not think the biblical text in question can support the weight of your inquiry. That being said, I'm all for a round of give and take over speculative matters!

For example, the four levels of biblical interpretation you mention remind me of the multiple levels of interpretation posited by some patristic and many medieval Christian bishops and scholars. I'll not go into detail at this point, other to stress how most taught that one needed to be introduced to the perspectives and skills needed to move through the various levels. The Protestant Reformation tended to discount this approach.

Some Christian Gnostics, of course, appear to have taught that a secret knowledge necessary to fully understand the scriptures was handed down from teacher to teacher. Gnosticism was a minority movement within broader ancient Christianity, though versions of it crop up throughout history.

The latter two possibilities you suggest find parallels in Christian mysticism. In all cases (I think), a given mystic would have acknowledged that even his or her own words were but a map, not the real God found in secret.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/15 Post

Wow! I love the idea that heaven is a condition rather than a reward. This places it outside of time: heaven is not a place we go to, but a condition we awaken to here and now. This is what Jesus may have meant (and to my mind should have meant and must have meant) when he said, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). This is comparable to the Pure Land of Shin Buddhism and Nirvana in Zen Buddhism. Both are states of mind, conditions of being, to which we awaken, rather than places to which we go. Going implies time and distance, awakening is either there or it isn’t. You can’t be a little awake, at least not in this context.

As for selflessness I agree that it is very difficult to act without considering what’s in it for me, but I would say that when we are totally present to the moment, when we are fully awake to the Kingdom within and among us (to blend the King James and NRSV translations) we do in fact act without self.

We can get a glimpse of this in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his marvelous study Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience calls the “flow state.” In this state time stops, self-consciousness fades, and we act effortlessly and joyously. Living the Kingdom of Heaven is living seamlessly with the Now, acting in accord with the moment in such a way as to help manifest the potential for love present in each moment. I suspect this is how Jesus is trying to teach us to live in the Sermon on the Mount. I wish organized religion devoted itself to teaching this as well, each using its won language and all pointing toward the same way of life.

You do mention some reward for selflessness, but to me selflessness is the reward, for with the ending of self arises the oneness of God, woman, man, and nature that is true Reality. If this is how Jesus recast the rabbinic ideal of lishmah—yasher koach! May his power increase!

You also seem to pit selflessness against self-reliance, linking the former to those “who depend upon God for all they truly need.” I wonder if there isn’t still a bit of self-hovering around those who depend on God. Indeed the very fact that they posit a God other then themselves suggests that they are not entirely selfless. True selflessness means that there is no egoic “I” at all: “Not I but Jesus in me,” as Paul might put it. In a sense when the self is gone so is the Other, not that God is absent when the self is absent, but God is all there is and hence there is no room for any other.

My original question dealt with Jesus’ phrase “your Father who is in secret.” It is such an odd phrase (I assume the Greek says this as well) that it demands parsing, though you opted not to do so. So let me try some ideas off the top of my head.

Try this: In Jesus’ day the rabbis spoke of four levels of biblical interpretation: the literal, the allegorical, the homiletical, and the mystical. This last is called “sod,” which is the Hebrew word for “secret.” While the first three levels are taught public, the fourth is hidden, only revealed by master to student, or by God. Could Jesus be referring to sod? Could he be saying something like, “your God who is revealed only in the secret teachings of Torah”?

Or try this: Jesus wants us to practice and pray in secret and it is in secret that God is found. Could it be that God is found only when we withdraw from self (a paradox for who is the I that withdraws?); only, in fact, when we end the self and dwell in the greater reality out of which the self emerges?

Or this: A secret is unknown. Perhaps that is where God dwells: in and as the unknown. All that is known, all our ideas about God and godliness, are like a map that we mistake for the territory. The map is an approximation, not the thing itself. The religious worship the map, indeed insist that the map is God and do their best to keep themselves and others from seeing and walking the territory directly. Jesus is calling us to put the map aside and engage with God directly. Since God is the unknown and unknowable, God is found in secret, in mystery, outside the fixed notions and behaviors of the pious. Jesus may be saying that only when we step beyond the known and allow ourselves to confront the unknown do we discover the Unknowable One beyond all thought and theory.

Obviously I am guessing here. Any thoughts?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 12/13 Post

Let's start by admitting that most Christians in any given era buy into the idea of rewards. Christians debate the nature, extent and timing of such rewards. That being said, many Christians in any given era teach the highest standard involves becoming the kind of person who practices righteousness without thought of reward. Fuzzy thinking, biblical illiteracy, unexamined religious traditions, and human nature often combine to complicate the picture.

That being said, I see the matter as follows.

(1) Jesus did not teach that heaven is a reward. Heaven is a condition, potentially experienced at any moment and potentially eternal. Heaven is to live in right relationship with God in each instant. Heaven is the kind of life God intended for humanity.

(2) It is incredibly difficult for any of us to undertake acts of righteousness without weighing the possible benefits to ourselves. Such benefits may include the approval of others. More subtly, we may fall into the trap of praising ourselves, of basing our sense of worth on the number or quality of our righteous works. Both approaches are highly self-concious, and both push us to do good things for the sake of a reward.

(3) In the passage, Jesus teaches his followers not to let one hand know what the other is doing. The core idea seems to be that his disciples are to be unselfconcious. In such a state, they may do good things without thought of any reward. They become so immersed in life with God that they no longer pay attention to the response of others or even themselves to their good works. Ideally, they become selfless.

(4) Jesus adds a surprise: God rewards the selfless. Such people will not expect a reward. They will be surprised by it, and are apt to try to give it away to someone else. They are like those who respond (paraphrased): "When did we see you in trouble, Jesus, and help you." They do not serve for the sake of any reward but instead do so because such service is part and parcel of their identity, an identity shaped by their growing intimacy with God. If this is true, I do not think Jesus abandoned the rabbinic standard of lishmah so much as he recast it.

With all of the above in mind, I tend to look upon the Christians you describe as people who have taken a first step. God has spoken to them, calling them to himself. Bound by culture (usually many layers of culture), they hear and interpret the call in terms of the life they know. There is no shame in starting from where one is, and God loves us more than enough to come and find us where we are (that's one implication of Incarnation, by the way). First steps, though, should never be last steps. As we follow Jesus, all of us should grow in our capacity for selflessness. Selflessness, of course, is only possible for those who depend upon God for all they actually need.

Finally, I think I understand the facination of the phrase "your Father who is in secret." How could any mystic not focus on it? In the case of the passage, though, I think it wise not to read too much into matter. The essential idea is that "God knows." God knows what it is like to work quietly and unobserved, and God sees all that is done in secret, including quiet deeds of righteousness. The more deeply we move into relationship with such a God, the more we adopt God's mode of operation.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/10 Post

I agree with your take on this passage, Mike, but I am troubled by Jesus’ linking of piety (I think a better translation from the Greek would be ‘righteousness’), charity, and prayer to heavenly reward.

While the rabbis of Jesus’ day did speak of heavenly rewards, they argued that the highest good was doing good for its own sake. The term they used (and which we continue to use) is lishmah, doing something for its own sake, simply because it is right. I don’t understand why Jesus would opt for a lesser standard than his contemporaries, especially when, as we have seen, he is not averse to demanding a higher standard than his rabbinic colleagues when he feels it necessary to do so.

I don’t want to make more of this than we should, but I have often been surprised in discussions with devout Christians when the issue of lishmah is raised (by me) and dismissed (by them). I have been told on numerous occasions that it is the purpose of faith to insure that the faithful escape eternal damnation in hell. “If there were no hell,” I have been told on numerous occasions, “there would be no reason to be a Christian.”

If these were the random thoughts of a few uninformed lay people, I would simply chalk it up to ignorance. Unfortunately I hear this kind of thing over and over from supposedly educated clergy. It is hard to dismiss as misinformation. The notion of doing good in order to earn a reward seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ message here, and hence at the heart of contemporary Christianity as well (or at least a certain kind of contemporary Christianity).

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that Judaism is free of such thinking. It isn’t. The essence of the Jewish relationship with God is covenantal, contractual: we will do “x” and God will do “y.” But the rabbis of Jesus’ day did try to lift the people beyond this quid pro quo level of theology with the idea of lishmah, doing right for its own sake.

So here are a couple of questions to which I would ask you to respond: 1) Do you think the need of many Christians to link piety to reward stems from this teaching of Jesus? and 2) Why do you think Jesus didn’t push for the higher rabbinic standard of lishmah?

On a separate matter, I am quite taken with Jesus’ advice regarding prayer: that we shut ourselves in our room and pray to our Father “who is in secret”. As you noted, it isn’t hard to see how those who challenge the value of community worship would hold up this teaching to argue against such prayer, and, as I am sure you agree, it isn’t a matter or either/or. There is a place for public worship as well as for private prayer and meditation.

But what intrigues me is the phrase “your Father who is in secret”. I have no idea what this means. I would love some insight into this and would very much like to hear how you understand it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 2/12 Post

"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that others may praise them. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not pray like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that others may see them. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:1-6) (NRSV)

Jesus focuses again on motivations. He uses two examples: almsgiving and prayer.

As I understand the matter, first century Jews regarded giving alms to the poor, whether directly or as part of synagogue worship, as an act of piety. It was the right thing to do. Jesus accepts both the practice and its purpose. His quarrel does not lie with the poor, or with those who use a well-established means to help them. Instead, Jesus takes issue with those who use the institution not to honor God or help others but to win applause for themselves.

In like fashion, Jesus does not have a problem with public prayers per se. He objects to those who use public prayers to win praise.

The hypocrisy, in both cases, lies in claiming to do something for the sake of others or in honor of God, while actually giving or praying in order to enhance one's reputation.

Far better, Jesus maintains, to give alms and pray in private. The poor will receive aid and God will be honored. The giver/prayer will be insulated from the temptation to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

I've known many who misuse the passage to discourage public prayer of any kind, providing relief to the poor, or being held accountable in any way for what they do by way of prayer or almsgiving. Such applications abuse the passage and miss Jesus' point--namely, that we are to seek to become selfless, utterly unselfconscious, in all things, including prayer and almsgiving. Insomuch as we do so, we become more nearly like God.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/2 Post

Christianity has no monopoly on circular reasoning. Ask any Jew about the notion that we are the Chosen People. How do we know God chose us? It is written in the Torah. Who wrote the Torah? We did. Duh. Even if your answer to the second question is "God wrote the Torah" the follow up question, "Who says God wrote the Torah?" ends up in the same place. Jews say God wrote the Torah. Even Christians and Muslims who also claim the Torah is divine revelation base their claims on the Jews.

One cannot escape the fact that in the end it is the individual who decides what is true or false for her or himself. Given the fact that we have no objective way of determining this, our conclusions should be drenched with humility.

Anyway, back to our text?

Mike: Response to Rami's 11/26 Post

The student's response is a classic example of circular reasoning, to put the most charitable interpretation on the matter. It is another example of the church's failure to teach people how to think well. Circular reasoning employed in the service of religious tribalism strengthens bigotry and fuels religious wars, both private and large-scale.

"Jesus is Lord" is the earliest known Christian confession of faith. What we do with it matters. In the early church, the statement was not used as a weapon or to divide. Instead, the confession marked one's personal commitment to try to follow Jesus. Most also regarded it as descriptive of their experience of God through "the risen Christ." It was a declaration of identity and intention. To put it another way, the confession amounted to a person saying: "This is who I am--someone for whom Jesus is the center of my life."

Those who take such an approach usually find themselves walking a road that leads to deepening humility, appreciation for the image of God in all others, and sacrifice for the good of others. The way is narrow, though, and too few walk it.